Posts Tagged journalism
By the time the Aurora theater and Arapaho High School shootings struck my city of Denver, I no longer accepted assignments to cover mass murder. A churn in my stomach stopped me.
I covered my first mass shooting as a photojournalist in 1991: Two suburban Florida families were executed on the same night, likely by the same killers. I covered extrajudicial executions, drug gang slayings and police raids on slums in Brazil. I scrambled to two mass shootings on the same day at separate Colorado churches and aimed my lens at the physical and emotional devastation of their communities. By far the most affecting was the 1999 shooting at Columbine High School. I was on the scene with my cameras as it happened and on that unstoppable story for two years after.
Then at 9:27a.m. on May 25, 2018, I, my wife and all the other parents of my stepson’s Noblesville, Indiana, middle school received the following text message:
“Shots have been reported at West middle school. Reports of one injury. Police are onsite and school is on lockdown. Stand by for more info.”
I grabbed my camera bag because I sensed that the scuffed and worn camera gear would get me closer to my stepson. To the first responders I would look like I belonged at the scene. I could scan through my longest lens for Callum’s face.
Empathy is a key to successful photojournalism. I had imagined being in this situation every time I photographed someone actually in it. I needed to put myself in in the shoes of the subject before I could know what fleeting emotion, glance, expression or light to capture. This time I wasn’t empathizing. I was living it. To not know if a child you love is safe, to not know where he is, to not be able to soothe or protect him is terrifying.
I photographed as I searched, out of recognition of the dizzying fear and shock on the faces in front of me. The earth was being torn out from under us. I was photographing my reflection.
I finally saw Callum with my own eyes three hours later, through the tinted window of an evacuation school bus. I photographed him scrambling past military-armed police to enter the nearby high school gym. His mother waited there with hundreds of other stunned parents.
Through all of this I had not thought as a journalist. The images I made were loose frames captured reflexively rather than attentively. I hadn’t collected IDs of the subjects. After I saw Callum with my own eyes, 30 years of journalism experience turned on. I was angry, shocked, disgusted and I wanted to fight back. The tool I had for that was the photographs I had made.
My first call was to the New York Times, the client for whom I had photographed almost a thousand other stories. The email response was polite, expressed condolences that it had happened at my kid’s school, and declined the images. For the Times this would stay a short story on the web with a wire photo. That was all.
Journalists use the fatality statistics of mass shootings as shorthand for scale. This number is how we have come to compare events like Parkland, Florida, or the Pulse nightclub shootings with this one at Noblesville West Middle School. I stared at that e-mail, angry and incredulous. Mass shootings are now so commonplace that a high fatality count is the measure of newsworthiness. This shooting, according to CNN, was the 23rd such event of 2018, happening in the 21st week.
I knew from living within this story that the more than 5,000 people directly connected to this school would never be the same. One 13-year-old girl was shot seven times, in the face, neck and torso, before her science teacher took three bullets tackling the armed classmate. Both are alive and recovering. The child shooter awaits trial as a juvenile on attempted murder and battery charges.
Fatalities are unquestionably horrible. Those of us on the periphery can only imagine the emotions and pain suffered by the families at the center of the act. But being both the subject of this story and a journalist covering it made strikingly clear how our focus on the fatalities alone unwittingly leads to the ignoring of the larger emotional damage.
I observed this after Columbine, where the focus of reporting was first on the shooters and their parents, then the 13 fatalities and their families. The 24 injured students and their difficult recoveries received far less attention, and the city of Littleton was only covered as a hotbed of suburban dysfunction. Already by the next morning those of us covering the story could feel a palpable chill from the community for doing a job we considered important: to understand the tragedy, its causes and consequences.
At the time, this chill seemed to me to be solely the result of a few journalists behaving insensitively and aggressively in pursuit of the scoop. Now, as a member of a community that has also been forcibly ejected from its sense of self, I better understand the chill that borders on hostility. We do not want our friends and neighbors exploited for ratings or clicks. We want you to understand that the thousands of seemingly unaffected people on the edge of the story are also the walking wounded.
In 2016 and 2017, the FBI reports, there were 50 active shooter incidents in 21 states. In those events 221 people were killed and 722 injured — more than three times as many injuries as fatalities. To add the wider affected communities would raise those numbers to the hundreds of thousands, yet we scale shooter events by the fatalities as we add to the ever-growing list.
I was angry that an event I was so closely living would get limited national coverage. But my awareness of the role journalism likely plays in how these events are inspired also shortened my breath that day. Had my diligent, empathetic and careful coverage of Columbine for the New York Times contributed directly to a shooter opening fire in my own stepson’s school? Sue Klebold, mother of one of the Columbine shooters, argues that this may be the case.
Five days later the New York Times published a story on the “seemingly contagious” nature of school shootings. It features a disturbing slideshow of images — many of them my own — identifying the visual vernacular of mass shooting photojournalism. “The phenomenon (of school shootings) is feeding on itself,” psychologist Peter Langman told the Times. “It’s gaining momentum, and the more there are, the more there will be.” In one paper, Langman mapped the influence of the Columbine shooters through a cascade of the style trappings they inspired in others. “We don’t do this intentionally, but we glorify shooters by showing the damage they’ve done — all the crying, all the empty seats — and for people with rage that has a particular appeal for them,” Klebold also told the Times.
I had heard her observations several times before, and as I scrambled to get my pictures into publication on May 25 her sentiment gnawed at my gut. Was my son’s school paying the price for my own coverage of Columbine 19 years earlier? What if the work good photojournalists do to show the human toll of these events was fueling disturbed young men to repeat the Columbine shooters’ actions and bring glory to their own suicides? For decades we avoided coverage of suicide due to its correlated contagiousness.
Our coverage has led, positively, to such movements as Never Again MSD and has fueled and informed political and social debate for more than 20 years. We now better understand what drives these events, who may be likely to aim a firearm at classmates, coworkers or the other, and how to better react as a community when they do. Noblesville West Middle School and the community surrounding it handled the event and its aftermath with far more expertise than any other shooting I covered.
Despite those better outcomes, a debate over a fundamental change in news coverage of mass shootings appears in the pages of journalism professional publications since at least 2015: Should we publish the names and faces of shooters? Criminologists have argued for a decade longer that this contributes to a contagion effect, and the data they use to support the argument are compelling.
Prior to reading these arguments I, like many of my journalism contemporaries, would argue that the name is fact No. 1 in reporting. “Who” starts that familiar list of interrogatives. When two decades of my photojournalism students turned in photographs without IDs, I would flunk their assignment for failure to get the most basic fact. USA Today argued the same in a 2015 editorial. While acknowledging the contagion effect and the need for compassion for victims and their families, that editorial most strenuously argued that withholding names might lead to censorship or a violation of the public’s right to know.
However, these arguments put journalistic dogma before the thoughtful pursuit of professionalism. There are many precedents for journalists withholding unnecessary information, from FDR’s wheelchair to our decades-long avoidance of suicide and bomb threat coverage. We often use our journalistic dogma for good — to argue a first amendment right, to limit undue influence from the outside, to lend voice to the voiceless. But like all dogma, ours is also used as a lazy excuse for not thinking hard enough about what we do. We work too often on autopilot, arriving at the events, collecting facts, quotes and images, and publishing them simply because that’s what we’ve always done. The profession of journalism is far too important to not have constant reevaluation of practice, motive and ethics.
Other researchers argue that the media plays far less of a role than before or that campaigns like #NoNotoriety oversimplify a complex issue. But as a profession, we need to do better.
Professional journalists show their values through their actions. Ignoring a data-supported public concern on behalf of an aphorism like “the public right to know” appears to put our internal needs or wishes above those of the public we serve. Though anyone with web access may find a shooter’s name, it wouldn’t be us delivering it, repeating it and adding to his fame.
Journalism is far from easy. It relies on an instinct about when to put a neighbor’s pain on display for a greater cause of public safety or to fuel the fight against injustice or terror. The practice of journalism must constantly be rethought, however, balancing tradition and experience with the constant evolution of the world we cover.
A few days after the shooting, my wife and I found ourselves at a school lunchroom table with other parents. None of their children had been in the room and all were physically safe. Yet tears streamed down the faces of sleepless, stressed, unable-to-work parents lucky enough to mourn only the loss of a sense of security. They had lived too close of a call to quickly step back into their prior lives. We were all enormously fortunate — we didn’t have to bury anyone, sit beside a hospital bed for weeks, help a child through the intense counseling required after witnessing a horror.
We will recover, but we want you to understand that we exist.
This article originally appeared in the Poynter Institute’s daily newsletter on October 18, 2018.
This is a cross-post with my additional new blog “Transmedia Journalism.” There I’ll be describing my research of the last year and continuing to flesh out the ideas behind it. Here’s what it’s about:
If you are here, reading this, you know that journalism is having some trouble. Not only is the economic model that used to pay for it sinking fast, but journalists are having a harder time reaching the public with their work in a very diverse and dispersed mediascape. This new blog and my ongoing research is mostly about the latter problem, though all of journalism’s woes are inextricably linked. Rather than waiting for the public to come to us for the news, we need to send our work down every conceivable avenue to find the public — new publics too — and win their engagement and loyalty. We need to improve the way we tell stories.
That is where the title of this new blog comes in. “Transmedia” is one of the top buzzwords of the past two years in the entertainment and advertising industries. It is proving to be extremely effective in reaching and engaging the public in those two realms, and there is much about it that we can put to use in telling the informative and factual stories journalists want to tell. Hollywood and Madison Avenue are using transmedia techniques to win more fans and engage them more deeply. That’s something we should want too.
Transmedia storytelling is not just convergence or multimedia by a new name. It’s also not an entity solely of the digital age. The Web is an excellent tool for much of it, but a transmedia story doesn’t unfold there or in any other single medium alone. It can, however, use any aspect of any media from the cave painting to the latest killer app.
Transmedia storytelling and the transmedia journalism I propose tells stories across an array of media — analog, digital and even brick-and-mortar — in an expansive rather than repetitive way. That would mean telling a complex story not only across the usual print, Web and broadcast media, but possibly through books, games, immersive experiences, graphic nonfiction (comics), gallery walls, museum installations, public lectures, public interaction and authorship, or any other medium appropriate to the story. It also means not simply re-editing a story for repetition among those media.
In entertainment it looks (briefly) like this:
Star Wars did it largely by accident. Starting with one film in 1977, the story proved so compelling and engaging that it exploded across the mediascape from films to comics, books, games, toys, fan fiction and video, and any other medium you can think of. Inspired by this, creators of The Matrix franchise in the late 90s designed a similar experience from the start, planning how their story would unfold not only on the screen, but continue through all those other media and more. Since the Matrix tale began more than a decade ago, other entertainment franchises, like the hugely successful Lost TV series, have successfully used transmedia storytelling design to rivet fans and put them to work finding, sharing and shaping stories.
As the new blog unfurls I will describe what transmedia storytelling is, where it comes from and how we can use it within the goals and ethics of journalism. It will come in both appetizer- and entree-sized chunks, but if you’re a big eater you can download the full academic paper. You’ll also see links there to all the pieces of important context and background on transmedia storytelling and transmedia journalism as they are published. Subscribe to the feed or the related tweets to know when there’s something new.
That blog will also be a hub for my ongoing research on the subject, and a place to air my and your related discoveries about it. Post links to interesting examples of transmedia stories from any industry, and send observations and suggestions my way. I’d love to hear them. And what does it have to do with photojournalism? I believe we visual reporters are very used to the idea of telling stories by alternative means.
This post is the barest scratch of the surface of what will come. Look ahead for deeper explanations of what transmedia storytelling looks like in the entertainment media — with many linked examples — places where journalism has gone before, and what transmedia journalism might look like — also with many linked examples. To start a deeper exploration go to the Contexts page there, and stay tuned to it is as the background and examples are posted.
The journalism profession is not short on experimentation with new ideas, new technologies and new storytelling methods. But they seem more like attempts to keep the publics they used to have than to find and engage new ones. I believe by adopting the techniques of transmedia storytelling, we can reach out to new readers, viewers, listeners and interactors in the media spaces where they already are, and engage them more deeply in complex real-world stories. It could certainly be easier than reviving our old model of expecting them to come to us.
Haiti could be the story of the year, and scores of international photojournalists are there now, more than a week after the devastating earthquake. Their work has been powerful and has unquestionably influenced the amount of aid headed there in the aftermath.
Though some journalism about the disaster (as usual) has been an embarrassment, overall the coverage has made me proud of my profession. Those photographers will eventually leave gratified, exhausted and permanently affected by their work.
But for the rest of us who are not there I suggest we support causes and charities that matter to us as photojournalists.
Here are a few photojournalist-related favorites:
Another one of very great importance is Internews, an organization that trains and supports local journalists around the world. Basic support of democracy, information and the Fourth Estate does not come from international journalists who parachute into the disaster. It must come from the locals who work the streets of countries like Haiti every day. And though those parachute journalists certainly help draw attention and support from the wider world, it is local information, delivered on the spot in local languages that can save lives immediately. Help Internews help Haitian and other local journalists get back up and running on their life-or-death jobs.
Read or listen to Bob Garfield’s interview last week with Mark Frohardt, the group’s vice president for Health and Humanitarian Media, on NPR’s On the Media…
…and then send a bit of help to any of the above.
To my readers I apologize for the sparsity of posts of late. Jobs of shooting and teaching now matched with study of my own has my schedule thoroughly filled. I hope you’ll stay tuned for monthly posts.